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Film Review: ‘They’re Watching’

Ugly Americans filming a reality-TV show in rural Moldova run headlong into witchy superstitions in this entertaining if none-too-scary thriller.

Brigid Brannagh, Kris Lemche, David Alpay, Carrie Genzel, Mia Faith, Dimitri Diatchenko, Cristian Balint. (English, Romanian dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3096858/

Proving once again that it’s a terrible, terrible idea for loud movie Americans to traipse around former Soviet backwaters, “They’re Watching” finds a reality-TV crew in way over their heads in a tiny Moldavian hamlet with a not-so-distant history of witch burning. Neither very plausible nor scary, this found-footage exercise is nonetheless entertaining enough for a spell, and the writing-directing duo of Jay Lender (a “SpongeBob SquarePants” animation vet) and Micah Wright (hitherto primarily a video-game writer) clearly don’t intend for it to be taken too seriously. Horror fans will be divided on whether the hectic finale makes it or breaks it. Amplify four-walled the pic on 10 U.S. screens starting Friday, simultaneous with the VOD release that will doubtless provide its principal returns.

After a short flash-forward to the end — revealing that at least one character’s fate involves the business end of an ax — we get a fleeting half-episode of the fictional worldwide home-improvement show “Home Hunters Global” (definitely to be confused with the long-running “House Hunters Intl.”). In it, host Kate Banks (Carrie Genzel) introduces us to Becky (Brigid Brannagh), a chirpy Los Angeles potter who’s decided to leave the big city for a serious fixer-upper in Moldova, the homeland of her pro-soccer-player boyfriend, Goran (Cristian Balint). Moldova is called an “affordable gem” of a country for moneyed Westerners, though “cheap and creepy” better describes what the reality show captures. The house Becky has bought is well outside the nearest small town, hasn’t been inhabited for many years, and is about as clean as a neglected stable. “Home Hunters Global” promises to check back with her in six months to see what she’s managed.

Half a year later, the shrewish Kate, nice-guy cameraman Greg (David Alpay) and snarky-jerk sound guy Alex (Kris Lemche) are reluctantly back, this time accompanied by fresh-out-of-film-school Sarah (Mia Faith), who scored an assistant job by dint of being the boss’s niece. They’re greeted by Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), the slimy local real-estate agent who finessed Becky’s original purchase. The natives send alternately threatening and warning signals to the visitors, who don’t help by causing great offense on several occasions in classic ugly-American fashion. It seems hereabouts they not only dislike strangers in general, but are very touchy about a certain alleged witch blamed for various ills a century ago. She was burned at the stake outside a home that might very well be Becky’s new spread.

That manse has, indeed, gone from grunge palace to showplace during the crew’s hiatus. But for reasons of her own, Kate is most eager to get this episode wrapped and trip over with as soon as possible, browbeating her irked crew to that end. Unfortunately, by the time they’re close to finished, the villagers no longer appear willing to let them leave — alive or otherwise.

A lively pace, entertaining performances and decent sense of humor keep “They’re Watching” watchable even while nothing much happens in horror terms for a long time, beyond ominous exchanges with eerily omnipresent, surly villagers. When the rahat (Romanian being spoken here) finally does hit the fan, there’s a not-entirely-surprising turnabout in terms of who/what the real menace is. The climax is a pileup of energetic if silly mayhem whose semi-cheesy CGI f/x probably aren’t intended to be “convincing,” and in any case aren’t.

Shot in Moldova’s larger neighbor Romania, the pic is competently packaged. Its desultory attitude toward pulling off the found-footage conceit is underlined by somewhat half-hearted use of a background score by Jonathan Wandag.

Film Review: 'They're Watching'

Reviewed at Four Star Theatre, San Francisco, March 28, 2016. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production: An Amplify release of a Best Served Cold production in association with Warsong Entertainment. Produced by Mark Lagrimas. Executive producer, Rico Garcia. Co-producer, Juliana Tarnovetchi.

Crew: Directed, written by Jay Lender, Micah Wright. Camera (color, HD), TM; editor, Blake Barrie; music, Jonathan Wandag; production designer, Monica Sorescu; set decorator, Adi Popa; costume designer, Adina Bucur; sound, Cristian Tamovetchi; special effects supervisors, Ian Cromer, Daniel Parvulescu; stunt coordinator, Rasvan Puiu; assistant director, Virgil Nicolaescu; casting, Nancy Nayor, Andy Henry.

With: Brigid Brannagh, Kris Lemche, David Alpay, Carrie Genzel, Mia Faith, Dimitri Diatchenko, Cristian Balint. (English, Romanian dialogue)

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